Undrafted Rookies Making Noise in Offseason Workouts
NFL teams have yet to conduct padded practices, but there's still plenty to pay attention to during workouts.
If a player isn't faring well on the practice field, it's a bad sign. Conversely, standout performances during OTAs and minicamp can fuel hype heading into training camp.
While it's naive to buy glowing reports about a player before he plays a regular-season snap, undrafted rookies in particular deserve scrutiny. After all, they're a bunch of underdogs hoping to work their way up from the bottom.
The early buzz below provides an idea of who's on track to earn a roster spot after going undrafted.
RB Akrum Wadley, Tennessee Titans
The Tennessee Titans released running back DeMarco Murray in early March and signed Dion Lewis, who broke out for 896 rushing yards on five yards per carry with the New England Patriots last season. He'll pair with Derrick Henry to handle the bulk of the rushing attempts for the Titans.
However, Tennessee may have to make room for Akrum Wadley as the third ball-carrier in a committee.
Wadley flashed in his last two years at Iowa as a ball-carrier and receiver out of the backfield, racking up 2,858 yards from scrimmage and 26 total touchdowns in that span. He also returned nine kicks for 271 yards during his senior year.
The Iowa product's run style and speed already caught the attention of TitansOnline.com's Jim Wyatt during OTAs.
"It was just a small sample during the open periods for media, but from the get-go, it's already clear running back Akrum Wadley has a burst. ... One thing I noticed: Wadley has a running style that includes a bit of a jump-step, or a skip. It allows him to get into another gear in a hurry."
Wadley mirrors Lewis as a potential complement to Henry, who runs with power. Keep an eye on his jump-step during the preseason as a signature style that stands out, especially if he's breaking off chunk yardage.
RB Ralph Webb, New England Patriots
The Patriots boast the deepest running back stable in the league.
Vanderbilt product Ralph Webb will have to sustain offseason success through the preseason to earn a roster spot, but there's a chance that he impresses more than newcomer Jeremy Hill or Mike Gillislee, who struggled in 2017.
According to Andy Hart of the team's official website, Webb jumped out to a good start in OTAs.
"Webb, a productive four-year player in the SEC, showed quick feet and athleticism in his first New England practice," Hart wrote. "The running back depth chart is crowded, but at the very least Webb looks like a guy who'll be fun to watch in the preseason."
Meanwhile, Hart listed Gillislee under players he's selling early in the offseason.
"His first day of the new year in front of the media didn't look great," he wrote. "He struggled in bag drills and drew the ire of veteran coach Ivan Fears. Based on his production last season and the competition at the position, Gillislee could be in a battle for his roster life."
Webb accumulated 4,178 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns across his four years at Vanderbilt. The Patriots signed him for a reason, and it's up to him to run with the opportunity as Gillislee struggles with the basics.
LB Skai Moore, Indianapolis Colts
As the Indianapolis Colts transition to a 4-3 base defense under new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, linebacker Skai Moore could see a fair amount of snaps in the frequently used nickel package.
The South Carolina product logged 14 interceptions in four collegiate seasons, and he carried those coverage skills over to OTAs.
Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star shared his early impressions of Moore after a practice session: "Skai Moore looks like a possible playmaker at MLB. Legit in coverage."
Moore played as a weak-side linebacker at South Carolina, but his reps in the middle illustrate an intriguing development for the 6'2", 230-pounder.
Nevertheless, it's important to have a linebacker who can cover the field in passing situations. Assuming rookie second-rounder Darius Leonard claims a starting role at linebacker, there's still an opportunity for Moore to push Antonio Morrison in the middle or carve out a rotational role.
CB Holton Hill, Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings boast one of the NFL's deepest cornerback units, and Holton Hill could become the latest addition to a strong group.
According to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, the Vikings think Hill possesses "starter ability." The Texas product signed a deal with $75,000 in guarantees, per Pelissero, and he lined up opposite of first-rounder Mike Hughes against the reserves during OTAs.
The 21-year-old may not see the field in 2018 due to the Vikings' depth at the position, but the team doesn't mind stockpiling cover men.
Pelissero says Hill "sought treatment" for marijuana use last fall, and Hill said he hasn't smoked since. The rookie is now learning what it takes to become a professional from the veterans around him.
The Vikings legitimately could go six deep in starting-caliber cornerbacks this season.
CB Levi Wallace, Buffalo Bills
After spending time at the Buffalo Bills' OTAs, NFL Network's Mike Garafolo highlighted an undrafted rookie that caught his eye: Alabama product Levi Wallace.
"He is very undersized, but I watched him on the field," Garafolo said. "What he lacks in physicality, he makes up on the mental side. He was breaking on a lot of the routes. Don't discount Levi Wallace making this team and being an impact player."
Wallace began his collegiate career as a walk-on and played sparingly across his first three seasons, but he moved into Alabama's starting lineup as a senior. He picked off three passes in 2017 and led the Crimson Tide with 15 pass breakups.
Behind Tre'Davious White and Vontae Davis, who experienced a down year last season, Buffalo doesn't have established talent at cornerback. There's room for Wallace to quickly rise through the ranks.
CB Tony Brown, Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers have one of the NFL's most underrated pass defenses heading into this season.
The Chargers selected safety Derwin James with the No. 17 overall pick, while 2014 first-rounder Jason Verrett, who has missed 27 games over the past two seasons, returns to a group that ranked third in yards allowed in 2017.
Recently, head coach Anthony Lynn raved about an undrafted gem that may join the secondary, according to Ricky Henne of Chargers.com.
"It's hard to tell after one practice, but I was just watching him out there at corner," Lynn said about Alabama product Tony Brown. "He can play some free safety as well. I thought he did fine. He's picking up the system. He's still learning (and) has a lot going on, but he's a very gifted young man. Very talented. His skill set is off the charts."
Brown ran a 4.35 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, and he plays with a compact frame at 6'0" and 198 pounds. If he's able to shift between cornerback and safety, he'll be another asset for the Chargers' deep secondary.
If nothing else, his speed should help him earn an immediate role on special teams.
CB Mike Jones, New York Giants
As New York Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher puts together a unit to fit his scheme, undrafted players have a clear opportunity to make a strong impression.
Temple product Mike Jones forced turnovers to garner some attention during OTAs last week, per John Schmeelk of the team's official website:
"Mike Jones had an interception on a Davis Webb pass during half-field passing drills, and then he picked off Kyle Lauletta during the next practice period: red-zone team drills. The interception of Webb came on him breaking on a ball, while the interception of the Lauletta pass came on an overthrow. Jones is a 5'9" undrafted free-agent rookie cornerback out of Temple and is trying to make the team this offseason."
Jones didn't pick off quarterback Eli Manning, but he's showing an ability to take away the ball and capitalize on mistakes. Forcing turnovers elevates a defensive unit from good to great.
Janoris Jenkins leads the cornerback group. The Giants' new coaching staff decided to wipe the slate clean with cornerback Eli Apple, who struggled on the field and clashed with safety Landon Collins last year. Pending Williams Gay's fit, Jones could push for a slot position or a role in dime packages.
Regardless, the rookie will earn a roster spot if he continues to break on the ball during practice.
Update: Giants waived Jones
PK Eddy Pineiro, Oakland Raiders
Leave it up to Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden to fire up season ticket holders with an update on the field-goal group.
It seems as though undrafted rookie Eddy Pineiro already has an advantage over Oakland's incumbent kicker, Giorgio Tavecchio. Here's what Gruden said on a conference call with season ticket holders, via Raiders.com:
"When you talk about Eddy Pineiro, he hasn't missed a field goal. We watched him kick today and he made every one. ... When you go back to the holder, the cool thing is we do have Johnny Townsend, who is an experienced holder and has a lot of experience holding for Pineiro, which is gonna help him tremendously.”
The Raiders drafted Townsend in the fifth round to take over punting duties. He worked with Pineiro for two years at Florida in the special teams unit.
Given his preexisting relationship with Oakland's projected starting punter, Pineiro may have the leg up on Tavecchio in the team's kicking competition.